Michelle Steele, a proud Kamilaroi woman, comes from a long line of strong women who put the heart of their community first. And it’s not a responsibility PRF’s Chief First Nations Officer holds lightly.
“In philanthropy we all want to make a positive impact,” she says. “For me as an Aboriginal woman, the desire is even greater.”
Growing up in Moree and then Tamworth, Michelle’s greatest heroes were her Nan and Pop. Rather than looking externally for role models, she found a deep sense of connection through family close to home.
Michelle says she always had a natural affinity for numbers and set her sights on becoming an accountant, but after starting an undergraduate degree in accounting, she quickly realised it wasn’t for her.
It was a supervisor in her first role at the Indigenous Land & Sea Corporation, who saw Michelle’s energy and smarts and encouraged her to return to university and utilise opportunities available.
After falling into her first job in government, she stayed for more than 18 years, most recently as the Assistant Secretary of the First Nations Aged Care Branch at the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care, leading the policies, programs and sector collaborations focused on improving the care experience of older First Nations peoples.
“I loved aged care,” says Michelle. “But I wanted the opportunity to think bigger, to think of the intersectional issues which affect these large policy areas.
“I was at a point in my career where I was looking for a leadership role which would enable me to expand my remit while still working closely with First Nations leaders, organisations, and communities.”
In April this year, Michelle was appointed as PRF’s first Chief First Nations Officer.
“It was important for me in leaving government to come to an organisation which matched my values and provided a supportive and safe cultural fit. Seeing PRF lead support towards the Voice campaign was a big contributor."
Michelle is also excited to work in a more flexible and responsive way with communities, something that’s not always possible in government.
“Philanthropy can enable rapid response to community need through a flexible and tailored approach, based on the priorities of the community. It provides an opportunity to work across multiple impact areas, and to influence more broadly.”
In her new role Michelle’s key focus will be helping to align PRF’s strategies with the priorities of First Nations communities, and work with the First Nations Advisory Council to set the strategic direction.
“The question for PRF is how we can shape and embed our engagement approach. How can we engage in a way which enacts self-determination?”
During the pandemic, Michelle led the COVID-19 Indigenous and Remote Policy and Implementation Branch and has seen first-hand the benefits of embedding genuine voice into policy program design and implementation.
“Organisations have often designed something first and use it as the basis of engagement with community, when in fact it needs to be the other way around. The engagement must come before the design.
“Lots of organisations are used to working at pace. We need to work at the speed of trust, and when you’ve got that, then we can talk about design.”
Michelle says the biggest opportunity for philanthropies working with First Nations communities is the way in which they can partner.
“We need to partner in a genuine way to ensure Indigenous voices are leading. We have an opportunity to demonstrate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can and will be the solution to advancing their communities.
“Partnership is not co-design. For it to be partnership we need to rethink the way we work, redistribute power and really embed partnership in a meaningful way for organisations and communities, with people who will be there for a lot longer than we ever will.”
For Michelle, a reconciled Australia is one where Indigenous business is everyone’s business.
“When Australia recognises Indigenous knowledge, practices, and ways of knowing, being, and doing, which have sustained this land for over 65,000 years, when our practices are valued, as a country we can move forward.
“We need to look back and look forward. Decisions we make today will have an impact on the future, and I feel that weight of responsibility for future generations.”
While a return to accounting is off the cards, Michelle acknowledges she is still growing up.
“I want a life where I’m learning and growing every day. No one has greater expectations for me than me. I want to be recognised as a leader not for my name but for the legacy and impact I leave.
“I will know my job is done when my job no longer exists.”